Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34
All of us were stunned and disgusted last week when Robert Bowers, an ardent right-wing supporter of Donald Trump slaughtered 11 Jewish worshippers in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. It was yet another instance of extreme violence by what are proving to be the most dangerous terrorist threats in our nation. They are not Muslims, but white male Christian nationalists with expressed Nazi sympathies.
Of course, Bowers' despicable act was not an isolated instance of anti-Semitism. In fact, actions inspired by hatred of Jews are part of the very fabric of western culture. In that tradition, Jews become scapegoats bearing the blame for plagues, poverty, wars, and wealth disparities. Christians such as the emperor Constantine along with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, the Inquisition, Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and now Trumpists have all done their parts to vilify those their Bible identifies as God's Chosen People. Ironically, they have all tried to murder the Jewish God.
But why the Jews? And even more broadly, why do white male Christian terrorists specifically pick on worshippers not only in synagogues, but in churches and mosques as well?
Why did Dylan Roof perform his massacre in a church basement where African-Americans were studying the Bible? Why the assassinations of spiritual leaders like King, Malcolm X? Why shoot Oscar Romero as he was celebrating Mass or slaughter that team of liberation theologians in El Salvador? Why did Salvadoran Treasury Police rape and kill those U.S. nuns in 1980? And, why did the United States decide to wage what Chomsky has called "the first religious war of the 21st century" specifically against the Catholic Church in Central America killing hundreds of thousands of believers in the process?
Today's liturgical readings suggest an answer.
They suggest that it's because religion, be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, represents a particularly powerful tool for inciting criticism of and resistance to oppression that serves the world's ruling classes whose laws justify the exploitation, marginalization and exclusion of whole classes of people -- women, orphans, day-laborers, the unemployed, the homeless, those with non-binary gender-identities, refugees and immigrants.
In his posting on the alt-right Gab social media site, Bowers himself railed against refugees. He justified his planned attack by referring to Tree of Life's commitment to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded in 1881. In Bowers' mind, the synagogue's connection with HIAS' traditional commitment to immigrants and refugees has it importing "foreign invaders that kill our people." For that reason, he shouted, "All Jews must die." He might just as well have yelled, "The Biblical God must die!"
More specifically, Bowers' words suggest that the enemy identified by the right (including -- let's admit it -- the U.S. government) are those who find in the Bible (and Holy Koran) a "higher law" that inspires them to relativize human laws that the most vulnerable among us find oppressive.
These oppressed groups intuit that human laws by definition are not neutral or just. They were formulated by power-establishments specifically for the purpose of solidifying existing relationships of superiority and inferiority -- for keeping money, property, and power exactly where they are: in the hands of the already rich and powerful.
To repeat, all of that proves relevant to this Sunday's liturgical readings which place God's law above all human legislation -- including, when you think about it, those governing borders, identification papers, green cards, sexual identity, voting practices, and women's bodies. That's what I meant about the readings being subversive, anarchistic, and resistance-provoking.
Look at today's Gospel reading in that light. There a member of the Scribal Establishment asks Jesus what is the most important law of all? Of course, Jesus does not say "the laws of imperial Rome." Neither does he identify even Sabbath law as the most important. Instead, he simply quotes the Hebrew Shema, which according to today's first reading from Deuteronomy originated with Moses himself.
Jesus response: The most important law is "'Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
In other words, according to both Moses and Jesus, all human laws must take a back seat to love of God and love of neighbor. And (crucially here) neighbor according to foundational Jewish texts is always epitomized in widows, orphans and resident aliens. This is shown by any quick perusal of Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and Malachi. According to all these sources, widows, orphans and resident aliens constitute God's Chosen People.